Novak flip-flops on requests for public officials' financial records


Nationally syndicated columnist and CNN host Robert D. Novak attacked Democratic political consultant Mike Rice and the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America for reportedly requesting public financial records of 30 appellate court judges (nine of whom Novak described as "widely mentioned Supreme Court possibilities"), characterizing their actions as "a major intelligence raid." Novak then claimed that "compiling financial profiles of judicial nominees plows new ground." In fact, financial disclosure records are public documents frequently used in the Senate confirmation process, and Novak himself has cited them in order to attack a Democratic politician.

In his May 16 nationally syndicated column, Novak twice described the requests for the financial records of potential Bush nominees who currently serve on federal appellate courts as "intelligence raids," suggesting that such information on federal judges is legally confidential. In fact, the personal financial disclosure records of federal judges are publicly available under the Ethics in Government Act to "provid[e] a check on conflicts of interest," according to a recent report by the General Accounting Office (now called the Government Accountability Office). Many of these files are available on the website of the conservative group Judicial Watch.

Financial disclosure records also factor heavily in judicial nominations. According to a March 17, 1997, article, USA Today used financial disclosure records and figures from the progressive judicial watchdog group Alliance for Justice to compile profiles of 25 judges nominated to the federal judiciary by former President Bill Clinton. The profiles included each judge's net worth, stock holdings, expenditures, and other information. A June 17, 1993, New York Times article on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the lengths Ginsburg's husband, Martin, went to in order to lay out his and his wife's financial records and avoid controversy over his wife's nomination to the Supreme Court:

And in a capital that has grown hypersensitive to the tax histories of nominees for high office, it was Mr. Ginsburg, one of the nation's leading tax experts, who averted any controversy about the couple's finances. On a few hours' notice, Mr. Ginsburg compiled years of financial records over the weekend. He walked Government accountants through years of filings on Sunday, as [Clinton counsel] Mr. [Bernard] Nussbaum was interviewing Judge Ginsburg in another room of the couple's Watergate apartment on a variety of legal and personal issues."

Novak himself has researched the financial records of officeholders. In an October 6, 1993, column, he commented on a controversy surrounding a townhouse purchased by Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and referenced Brown's financial disclosure statements:

We found that on Dec. 15, 1992, three days after Clinton announced Brown's nomination to the Cabinet, the then Democratic National chairman and his son, Michael, signed a $360,000 deed of purchase for the property at 4303 Westover Place, N.W., in Washington. Since settlement on the purchase did not come until Jan. 29, it was not listed in Brown's government financial disclosure completed Jan. 1.

In his May 16 column, Novak attempted to specifically discredit Rice for his research into financial records, claiming that "his special field has been negative research probing the background of political foes." But Novak has praised Republican investigators who have sought financial records for intimidation purposes. In 1995, when U.S. District Judge Henry Woods struck down an indictment handed down by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigation into the Whitewater scandal, David N. Bossie -- then an aide to a Republican senator linked to the investigation -- requested financial disclosure statements from Wood encompassing a 15-year period as a means to intimidate the judge [Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, The Hunting of the President (Thomas Dunne Books, 2000)]. But in a May 14, 1998, column, Novak lauded Bossie as a "tireless Republican investigator" and "a good solider," though Novak did not address Bossie's inquiry into Wood.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.